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Italian ketubah

The tradition of the ketubah (a Jewish marriage contract) dates back 2000 years, making it one of the earliest documents granting women legal and financial rights. This example records the matrimony of a Jewish couple in 18th-century Ancona, which was known for its splendid ketubot.

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Italian ketubah

Italian Ketubah, Ancona, Italy, 1776
BL Or. MS 12377M
Copyright © The British Library Board

What is a ketubah?

A ketubah (in Hebrew, the plural is ketubot) is simply a marriage contract, though it is not a part of the actual Jewish wedding ceremony. It states financial arrangements, and each partner's rights and responsibilities. Ketubahs are often lavishly decorated, perhaps reflecting the styles and aesthetics of the time and place, and may be proudly displayed in a couple's home.

A thriving port on the Adriatic, the papal city of Ancona was the site of a prosperous and cultured Jewish community. Welcomed in the 15th century, they had to weather local oppression in the 16th when 24 of them were burned at the stake. The community was confined to a ghetto and suffered persecution as late as the 1770s.

Perhaps as a desire to reinforce their identity in the face of these challenges, Ancona became one of the major centres of Ketubah decoration in Italy. So luxurious were some ketubahs that the Jewish community authorities had to set a maximum permitted price. One of their distinctive marks was the pointed upper border, known as an 'ogee arch'. Another typical feature, with many variations, was a wider external frame with roundels incorporating the signs of the zodiac and narrative Biblical scenes.

Couples looking to buy ketubahs today can still buy examples decorated in the style of 18th-century Ancona, similar to the one illustrated here.

What does this ketubah say?

This ketubah records the marriage of Moses Michael ben Judah from Ascoli and Esther, daughter of Joshua Sabbetai, in Ancona. This contract includes a depiction of Jerusalem in the lower vignette with the following legend: "If I forget thee, O Jerusalem, let my right hand forget her cunning" (Psalms 137: 5), which is often recited at Jewish ceremonies. The text also memorably occurs in William Walton's 1931 choral piece Belshazzar's Feast.

Hebrew scriptural verses from Proverbs 12:4 and Psalms 128:3 alluding to the wife's attributes and her fertility appear in the upper perimeter inside the crown and in the heart-shaped cartouche placed beneath it.

What happens at a Jewish wedding?

In the Jewish tradition the wedding ceremony is usually held in a synagogue, although this is not obligatory. The bride and groom are traditionally married under a hupah (bridal canopy), something originally mentioned in the Hebrew Bible (Joel 2: 16; Psalms 19: 6).


A modern-day bridal canopy, hand-embroidered by Tamara Zlotogoura

The hupah symbolises the new home that the bride and groom will build together, and is usually made of cloth and held up by four poles. During the ceremony, the rabbi conducting the marriage service, the couple and their closest relatives stand under the canopy. The structure is open on all sides, as was patriarch Abraham's tent, a clear allusion to the hospitality of a Jewish home.

The groom gives the bride a ring and breaks a glass underfoot, said to be a reminder of the destruction of the Jerusalem Temple. The terms of the dowry are set down in the ketubah.

You can see footage of a Jewish wedding in our videos section.